The Immediate Roadside Prohibition program's introduction in September 2010 has been followed by a 68 per cent drop in drivers charged with impaired driving.

B.C. drunk driving rules saving lives: study

Criminal impaired charges plunged after new penalties

An independent study credits B.C.’s controversial drinking and driving laws for a 40 per cent drop in fatal crashes related to alcohol.

Since September of 2010, police have handed out temporary driving bans and fines to many drivers caught with blood-alcohol levels over .05, including many who blow over the criminal threshold of .08 who would previously have been prosecuted for impaired driving.

The Centre for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria and UBC researchers studied crash statistics before and after the Immediate Roadside Prohibition program took effect and concluded there has also been a 23 per cent drop in injuries and 19.5 per cent less property damage stemming from alcohol-related crashes.

“The goals of improved road safety by the provincial government were achieved,” the report said, despite the “partial decriminalization” of impaired driving in B.C. that accompanied the change.

According to the study, 2,890 drivers were charged with impaired driving after the policy change, compared to 9,070 in the year prior to implementation – a 68 per cent drop.

It notes roadside penalties are enforced immediately and seen as more severe – particularly at the lower alcohol levels – while it’s a long, difficult and uncertain process to convicted drunk drivers in court.

Researchers said they can’t tell for certain if the new penalties themselves or the publicity about them are most responsible for the change in behaviour.

Criminal charges are still more likely with repeat offenders, according to the study.

It notes police can’t issue roadside penalties for crashes they didn’t witness, so criminal charges are the only option in those cases.

Provincial politicians have promoted the change as a life-saver, but they also acknowledge it has helped relieve some pressure on the congested justice system.

Officials at the Centre for Addictions Research said the findings suggest other provinces should follow B.C.’s lead.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director Josh Patterson said the new approach runs counter to the presumption of innocence in our society.

“We don’t think that police should be in the position of giving out punishment,” he said. “We think that is the job of the courts.”

B.C.’s program was revised to require the right to two breath tests, with the lowest reading being used, and an appeal procedure is now in place.

Legal challenges that aim to overturn the system are still before the courts.